Ashley Graham - December 2, 2016 - LEAD
Credit: Gary Gershoff/WireImage

Way before she walked the runway and graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Ashley Graham was just like every other fashion-loving millennial—racing home from school to live vicariously through the new episode of America’s Next Top Model.

“The show was a staple in my house,” Graham tells InStyle. “I watched it all through high school. And back then we didn’t have a DVR, so I really had to make a point to be there when it was on.”

The show’s host, Tyra Banks, ended up having the biggest impact on Graham. “I think I actually learned to smize from watching Tyra on TV,” she says. “I was the only model in my school, so, of course, everybody just automatically thought I knew what I was doing. Really, I would watch the show and then practice at home before I went to school.”

It seems that practice paid off. This year has been a breakthrough for Graham, from her groundbreaking SI cover to her business ventures, which include collections for Dressbarn, Swimsuits For All, and Addition Elle. And now, to top it all off, Graham is one of the four new judges on the rebooted Top Model (Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on VH1), alongside Rita Ora, stylist Law Roach, and Paper Magazine creative director Drew Elliot.

“After my Sports Illustrated cover, Tyra reached out to me about doing the show,” says Graham. “It was a really cool moment for me. And she has continued to be a great mentor throughout the whole process.” While Banks is no longer hosting the show (Ora is stepping into those stilettos), she is still executive-producing the series, making special appearances, and doling out her supermodel-isms to the up-and-comers.

“One thing Tyra said that really stuck with me was ‘You can always dream bigger.’ I have written that down and really taken it to heart,” says Graham. “So much of what I’ve always wanted has been coming true. Now I just focus on what else I can accomplish.”

Read on for more of our conversation with Graham below. And check out her monthly column in InStyle’s January issue, available on newsstands and for digital download now.

We know you were a big fan of the old ANTM. What differences can we expect in the reboot?

This season, the competition isn’t just about being a pretty face. Being a successful model today is so much more than that—it’s about being a brand. It’s still the America’s Next Top Model that you used to love, but it’s evolved along with the modeling industry.

How would you describe yourself as a judge?

I'm somewhere between the nice one and the tough one. I’m not afraid to give some tough love. I've had so much criticism about what kind of model I should be. Yes, some of it has hurt, but a lot of it has been helpful. It made me work harder and get to where I am today. I'm representing a woman that really hasn't been seen on television before—a curvy, fashion-forward, sassy, sexy lady. So I'm really excited for people to see it.

Was it ever hard giving constructive criticism to the models?

No, not at all. I knew what I was getting myself into. As a model myself, I also knew how to communicate with the girls in a way that would help them get better. And I really think that they looked at it that way. They've seen where my career has gone and what they could have.

Who was the toughest judge out of the group?

I think that the boys were the hardest judges, but it really depended on the day. I’m sure there will be an episode where I’m the tough one. Rita was always so great with the girls. She really has a heart for all of them and wants them to succeed. All four of us wanted to help change their lives.

Did you ever play favorites?

In the beginning, I definitely had my favorites. When I first saw the twins, I thought they were so beautiful. But as the challenges went on, it all started changing. You get to see people’s strengths and weaknesses. And then you get surprised by who really has it. It was fun to watch the evolution.

What is one thing you wish you had known about the modeling industry when you were starting out?

I wish I would have known that if you play the long game, instead of the short and fast game, you'll actually become a better model. And I was always worried about getting to the top quick and making money quick. And I think that if I would have had more patience and realized that success will come to you when you're ready, it would have given me a little less stress in my life. A model's career can last a lifetime if you play your cards right.

Did you pass that advice along to the contestants this season?

Yes—one night I came to their house and we made a meal and just hung out. Each one of them went around the table and asked for advice. It was just really nice to be able to have a one-on-one conversation with each of them and step into that big sister role. I've been in their shoes. I've had to go through what they've had to go through and it can be discouraging. If you know that you have someone that's watching out for you, it’s much easier.

There are some awesome guests stopping by this season for challenges, like Chanel Iman and Zendaya. Who was the most fun on set?

They all are! It was really cool and surprising to see the people who aren’t models come onto the set. You're like “Wait, what is French Montana doing here? What is DJ Khaled doing here?” But as a model, you never know when you're going to be put in a new situation, like a music video. Earlier this year, I was in the DNCE video with Joe Jonas and I had never done that before.

Any memorable moments from filming?

Tons! There is a challenge on the roof of a building in New York City and we were all jumping on trampolines. The whole time we were filming I was actually hoping and praying that nobody would fall off the roof. It's a little intense, to say the least!